Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Are Women Really People: Images of Women in Fiction, Part 1

Some time ago I was involved in a rather heated discussion on another blog about the expectations that readers may reasonably have of writers. Among the many questions under debate was how unreasonable it was of me to "be hard on" male authors who portrayed women in 1 dimensional and stereotyped ways if those authors themselves lived in a time and culture where such attitudes were normal. 

The discussion soon focused on a rather narrow moment in time as one poster responded to criticisms of an author by making the argument that it was unreasonable of me to expect a more enlightened attitude toward women from an author writing in the late 1960s. When I demonstrated that other authors writing at roughly the same time had been published (and received awards for) books that showed far more nuanced, varied and challenging images of women the poster countered by claiming that such writing was extraordinary and exceptional and that thus it was unreasonable of me to expect it of the author in question.

I will leave for a future post a discussion of the tendency of people to find it personally insulting a writer they enjoy(ed) is racist, exist or homophobic in order to write to the poster's claim that to see and write about women in a way that recognized their varied abilities, intellects and interests and that recognized and valued them in a way that did not objectify them was, in 1970, extraordinary and exceptional.

I have been, for the last day, reading Mrs. Ames, a book written by E. F. Benson and published in 1912. Benson is probably best known and remembered today for his Mapp and Lucia series and for his ghost stories. He was a popular and successful writer who wrote both fiction and nonfiction but is not considered among the great writers of his time. Yet in reading this book, which follows the life a number of upper middle-class families in a sleepy English town in the years leading up to what they would come to call "The Great War," I find a deeper, more thoughtful and, sometimes, chilling picture of interior and exterior life of women than in many books written in the intervening years..

The titular Mrs. Ames becomes involved in the Suffragette movement. As the book opened she had been vaguely in support of it and she becomes more active in it as a "stunt" to reclaim her place as social leader of village society. However her involvement has an unexpected effects on her and the others who follow her:

And no less remarkable than this growth of the league was the growth of Mrs. Ames. . . . The bonds of her barren and barbaric conventionality were bursting; indeed, it was not so much that others, not even those of " her class," were becoming women to her, as that she was becoming a woman herself. She had scarcely been one hitherto; she had been a piece of perfect propriety.
The chairman asked Mrs. Brooks to address the meeting. Another and another succeeded her, and there was complete unanimity of purpose in their suggestions. Sir James' meetings and his speeches to his constituents must not be allowed to proceed without interruption. If he had no sympathy with the cause, the cause would show a marked lack of sympathy with him. . . . And as the discussion went on, and real practical plans were made, that strange fascination and excitement at the thought of shouting and interrupting at a public meeting, of becoming for the first time of some consequence, began to seethe and ferment. Most of the members were women, whose lives had been passed in continuous self-repression, who had been frozen over by the narcotic ice of a completely conventional and humdrum existence. . . . To the eagerness and sincerity with which they welcomed a work that demanded justice for their sex, there was added this excitement of doing something at last. . . . To this, a sincere and wholly laudable desire, was added the more personal stimulus. They would be doing something, instead of suffering the tedium of passivity, acting instead of being acted on. For it is only through centuries of custom that the woman, physically weak and liable to be knocked down, has become the servant of the other sex. She is fiercer at heart, more courageous, more scornful of consequences than he; it is only muscular inferiority of strength that has subdued her into the place that she occupies, that, and the periods when, for the continuance of the race, she must submit to months of tender and strong inaction. [Bolding added. Note: This work is in the Public Domain]

Benson is, in many ways, the most conventional of writers. One might theorize that he, the son of woman who found companionship in partnership with another woman after her husband, the Archbishop of Canterbury, died, might have observed some of what he was writing about over the dinner table at home. Neither Benson nor any of his siblings married and some have claimed that he was himself was gay. What is clear is that this good, but clearly not exceptionally good, and thoughtful but anything but ground-breaking author was able to observe, and empathize with, the realities of life for women of his class.

So, to answer that poster, I do not think it was unreasonable of me to not "give a pass" to a man writing in the 1970s. I was only asking him to be at least as observant and empathetic as was Benson writing over 50 years earlier.


  1. The day a woman makes the 'everyone was sexist back then' argument, or a person of colour makes the 'everyone was racist back then' argument, or the Jew makes the 'everyone was anti-Semitic back then' argument, or the gay person makes the 'everyone was homophobic back then' argument ... that's the day I'll listen.

    Till then, not so much. I just don't think it's anyone's place to give a pass to prejudice that wasn't directed against them.

  2. I totally agree.

    I actually hadn't planned to write about this subject at all. However I was, as I said, reading Benson and was surprised to find passage after passage like that I quoted.

    Of course, it also brings up one my 'pet peeves' about reviews of books such as these. Because Benson often set his stories among a small number of well-off people in small British towns AND because he focuses much more on the women than the men THEREFORE his books get described as "light" and "superficial."

    I have read reviews of Mrs. Ames written at the time it was published and more recently. They overwhelmingly describe the books as "centered on meaningless gossip" and "basically about silly people." Yes, they are about silly people, but Benson didn't think that silly people didn't deserve to be considered or written about. And he is often rather interested as to why and how people become silly.

    Or, in other words, just because a book is about women doesn't mean that it is superficial.

  3. Er, I meant to type 'a Jew', not 'the Jew.' Clearly there is more than one Jewish person in the world. Ditto 'the gay person'. I seem to have a problem distinguishing my articles today.

    And yeah, female equalling trivial is very galling indeed.

  4. And yeah, female equalling trivial is very galling indeed.

    So, women have been proved not to be great writers because men aren't interested in reading books about women or demote any such book to a "minor" genre.

    But when women write about men they get criticized for "not getting it right."

    And if women write about men and do "get it right" it is used to demonstrate that writing about men is universal and about women is particularist.

    Head bang.

  5. I seem to remember hearing television and film producers in the 1970's defending their use of many more males than females as leading characters in narratives aimed at a youth audience. They maintained that in general girls will watch a film or TV show with a male leading character but that boys will not watch a film or TV show with a female leading character. So, since profits apparently trumped human rights, the producers decided to reinforce the perception that women, whether as leading or supporting characters, were automatically not as interesting as males by continuing to write more interesting and more leading roles for males than females. And don't get me started on the scene in the first Harry Potter book (end of Chapter 16) in which Hermione saves Harry by using her brains. It was great until at the end Hermione minimizes her own achievement and her own abilities in general - and apparently when they made the film of the first book they couldn't stand the idea of Hermione saving the day that they cut the scene out completely. It really pissed me off.
    The Kidd.

  6. Hmm, seems to be available on Gutenberg. Is it an interesting read, worth perusing for the story and characters in and of itself? You seem to be saying it is, so I think I may add it to my online reading list.

  7. Andrew -- difficult to say whether you would enjoy it. I am in the middle of reading several hundred books written in the same broad period of time and so I am used to the style and pacing of these books. Benson wrote over 100 books and they vary quite a bit in style and substance over time and topic.

    He is best known today for the Mapp and Lucia series. Indeed most people really only know the last 3 books of that series (since those were the ones adapted for the British television.) Those books were among the last he wrote and, in my opinion, were heavily influenced by what was going on in his own life.

    Mrs. Ames itself is a strange book. Or at least it is strange to arrive at it having read Benson's more famous books and the typical reviews. Yes, the book is set in a small town with a stifling social life. Yes, it revolves around a few upper middle-class characters. And yes, it is full of characters whose lives revolve around gossip and the acquiring and maintaining of social position. Yet at its heart is the serious examination of two women each facing a crisis brought on by growing older within an emotionally unfulfilling marriage.

    I felt for both women and I also laughed out loud at points. However when I read the passages that evoked the laughter to mmyspouse I sometimes had to explain "why" they were funny -- since the humour arises from characters ignoring social conventions that few people today have even heard of.

    I plan to write a longish review of the book and I will post it here (or at least post a link to it here.)

    Re Gutenberg -- one of the joys of researching fiction long out of copyright is that it is comparatively inexpensive.

  8. *They maintained that in general girls will watch a film or TV show with a male leading character but that boys will not watch a film or TV show with a female leading character.*

    Well of course they won't if you don't actually make shows and films with female leading characters - or if the only stuff you make that does have a female lead is heavily aimed at an all-female market. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.


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